A war-wary terrorist

By all indications, these days Nasrallah is sweating bullets under his turban.

Nasarallah adresses crowd in Beirut (photo credit: REUTERS)
Nasarallah adresses crowd in Beirut
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the wake of Operation Pillar of Defense, observers in Israel and abroad noted that the main loser was Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, whose political fortunes, it was said, dimmed as those of Hamas brightened.
However this assessment overlooks the impact of the operation on Hassan Nasrallah and his Hezbollah organization in Lebanon. By all indications, these days Nasrallah is sweating bullets under his turban.
First, the decapitation of Hamas with the targeted killing of its military chief Ahmed Jabari, which opened the operation, affirms that Israel’s policy of targeted killings has been further perfected. The seamless synergy between precise real-time intelligence, hair trigger reaction and pinpoint accuracy responsible for he hit on Jabari amounts to a tactical breakthough which surely did not escape Nasrallah’s attention. It was as if the IDF was “roof knocking” (a tactic where occupants are warned by the Israeli military to escape just ahead of bombing a terrorist target) on his bunker. Moreover, Nasrallah must now suspect he would be the first target of any future Hezbollah-Israeli conflict.
Second, hiding fighters and arms among civilians, a favorite tactic of Hezbollah, proved a poor deterrent to the IDF and could not stop the Israel Air Force from destroying the better portion of Hamas/Islamic Jihad’s caches of longer range rockets.
Third, Nasrallah was undoubtedly surprised by the launch of Pillar of Defense. It could not but evoke in him the memory of the surprise he was dealt in 2006 by thenprime minister Ehud Olmert. This time, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was undeterred by increasingly adverse regional circumstances, the ability of Gaza militants to launch rockets deep into Israel, or the knowledge that an unsuccessful operation would likely doom his reelection chances.
Fourth, despite repeated rocket strikes on their cities and towns Israeli citizens were not cowed by the war. If anything, whatever popular discontent was to the effect that the operation ended “too soon.” While this could be ascribed in part to the success of the Iron Dome’s missile-defense system, which would not be relevant against Hezbollah’s longer-range rockets, the steadfastness of Israeli civilians under attack must be viewed by Nasralah gravely. After all, ever since the 2006 Lebanese war at least Hezbollah’s primary mission, certainly in the minds of its Iranian sponsors, is the holding of Israeli population centers hostage as a deterrent.
Fifth, Nasrallah surely witnessed the massive military power mobilized by Israel quickly for a possible ground operation in Gaza. By Israeli media accounts, compared to the 2009 Cast Lead operation, this time the IDF’s logistics branch hauled twice the number of APCs and three times the number of tanks to the front.
Sixth, Nasrallah must consider that following the heavy blows they suffered at the hands of the IDF, Hamas and other Gaza radicals will be less inclined to initiate violence against Israel. Under such circumstances Israel would be able to focus mostly on its northern front.
The alarm with which the Hezbollah leader reacted to the IDF’s aerial blitz and the quick mobilization that followed could be easily gleaned from the marked change in the tempo and tone of his warnings during and certainly after the operation. It appears the Hezbollah leader strongly suspects that Operation Pillar of Defense was a dress rehearsal for an attack on his group, as part of Netanyahu’s SUPPOSED master plan for crippling Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
In fact,the Beirut paper Daily Star on November 25, reported that the Hezbollah chief became concerned after what he described as “talk” that Israel was contemplating launching an offensive against Lebanon to regain its status in the region “on the basis that if Israel attacks Lebanon then the latter will not receive the same solidarity and sympathy that Gaza received.”
Little wonder that Nasrallah, in a break with his usually secretive ways, was suddenly eager for the limelight – that is at least virtually, via video-taped speeches. Indeed, during and after Pillar of Defense Hezbollah acted as if it were part of the battlefield. it sought to divert attention from its failure to list a finger to help its Gaza Brethren. Rather Nasrallah became a (virtual) partner in Israel’s “defeat” aiming to enhance his political clout and credibility of his threats. All the time he probably was digging deeper underground and/or changing locatons even moe frequently than before.
THE WARNINGS became more shrill, as well. Instead of bombarding Tel Aviv, which Nasrallah had already vowed to attack if another conflict erupted, the Hezbollah leader now threatened to strike all of Israel. Speaking four days after the cease-fire went into effect, Nasrallah declared, “If the confrontation with the Gaza Strip... had a range of 40 to 70 km., the battle with us will range over the whole of occupied Palestine – from the Lebanese border to the Jordanian border, to the Red Sea. [Hezbollah could hit targets] from Kiryat Shmona – and let the Israelis listen carefully – from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat.”
Incredibly enough, Nasrallah was in effect pleading with the Israeli public to heed his warnings. His mouthpiece, Al-Manar TV, went as far as advising Israelis they had “better listen” to his exhortations after it aired a detailed report on November 27, about Hezbollah’s rocket capabilities and the damage they could inflict all across Israel.
It is obvious Nasrallah is not itching for a fight. As long as Israel does not act against Hezbollah, he could claim his group’s prowess saved Lebanon from the planned aggression. His bravado also diverts attention from his role in support of the Assad regime in Syria and vindicates the value of Hezbollah’s continued possession of a separate arsenal to Lebanon’s defense. His role in the strategy of his Iranian patrons as a stop-gap strategic deterrent vis-a-vis Israel would also be preserved.
What, then, could be expected now that Pillar of Defense is history? First, Iran and Hezbollah are likely to redouble their efforts to rebuild Israel’s southern front by rearming and retraining Hamas and the other Gaza-based terrorist groups. However, as Pillar of Defense demonstrated that Nasrallah and his masters in Tehran are ready to fight to the last Gazan it is unclear whether their Hamas bet would pay off in a future Israel-Hezbollah-Iran scenario. The fact that Egypt is now an unofficial guarantor of the Israel-Hamas cease-fire could also hinder the Tehran-Hezbollah plan.
Second, after the aerial blitz of Pillar of Defense, Nasrallah likely understands that the continued survival of Hezbollah as the linchpin of Arab resistance to Israel depends more than ever on obtaining an Iranian nuclear umbrella, and soon. In the interim, he may well try to put his hands on some of Syria’s chemical weapons now that the regime is tetering and he is frantic to keep Israel in check. Likewise the Iranians appreciate better that the survival of their nuclear program depends on upgrading Hezbollah’s ability to deter Israel.
Thus, for now the Lebanese border will likely stay quiet. That is, if Israel plays along.
The writer is the author of The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence (Yale University Press).